Before Sen. John McCain's election night belly flop was complete, the big question was thrown before the deans and doyennes of political television for hearty discussion. It is a question that will doubtlessly inspire altogether too much jejune navel gazing and surely more than two dozen books before the next president is chosen.
Is America now a center-left nation? Throughout the modern era, the conventional wisdom has been that regardless of partisan label, American voters are ideologically center-right. The mythical voter at the absolute middle of the electorate favored lower taxes, a strong defense, welfare reform, gun rights, and capital punishment. These issues limited Democrats' ability to hold swing districts and states. More recently, it has led to the successful recruitment and promotion of moderate, pro-business, tough on crime candidates within their party.
Many conservatives claim that there has been no massive change of heart on these questions in the space of two election cycles. They argue that America has not joined the rest of the Western world in center-leftism. They have some basis for this.
Even the deservedly maligned exit polls depict a 2008 electorate that only describes itself as 22 percent liberal versus 34 percent conservative - essentially unchanged from 2004. As a candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama moved aggressively toward the political center in the wake of his nomination on issues like gun rights and the death penalty, showing their political value. And it's true that despite overenthusiastic predictions by some media cheerleaders for now-President-elect Obama, there was no tidal wave of new voters indicating some undiscovered trend, just minor increases in youth and minority participation. Roughly the same portion of voters cast ballots in this election as in 2004, prompting American University political scientist Curtis Gans to scoff in the pages of this newspaper at the absurd suggestions of 130 million votes.
Yet the Republican argument that Americans - buoyed by a celebrity candidacy on the one hand, turned off by a lackluster single-issue candidate in Mr. McCain whose issue evaporated in importance by Election Day, and inspired by the lure of a history-making moment to clear the nation's racial conscience - made a choice of candidates, not ideologies, is simply absurd.
It is now abundantly clear that America is a center-left nation, and healthy majorities of the American people agree with Mr. Obama's liberal economic policies.
The tax cut issue no longer inspires frustration from the American electorate - large portions of voters were confident their taxes would increase under Mr. Obama, but gladly voted for him anyway. The size of government is no longer a political issue - where President Bill Clinton once said, to applause from both sides of the aisle, that the era of big government was over, the American people are well aware that they've voted for a new president who has few concerns about the ever-expanding deficit, and plans to expand government spending like none other. And if Mr. Obama keeps his election promises on the health-care issue, it will not be the egregious political overstep of Hillarycare, but catering to the new middle of the American voting populace.
In an election about the economy, Mr. McCain was no real opponent to Mr. Obama. He presented no tangible arguments in favor of the freedom of consumer choice or against restrictive government regulation - perhaps because Mr. McCain has made a career out of believing in the powerful strength of such regulation. On non-economic issues where Mr. Obama's extreme positions were rejected by his own base - such as in California, where 95 percent of minority voters supported Mr. Obama and 70 percent of those same voters voted for a ban on same-sex marriage - Mr. McCain recoiled from mentioning them. Exit polls indicate majority opposition to the Wall Street bailout, but on a populist issue that gave him an opportunity to create some contrast with Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain reverted to senatorial Henry Clay form to help pass the vague and politically unpopular bill.
On Election Day, Mr. McCain lost 1 out of every 5 voters who went for George W. Bush, and one could argue that number is shockingly low considering that his favored response to the audacity of hope was frequently the atrocity of the banal.
It is not all Mr. McCain's fault - supporters of small government and the free market have simply failed to make their case to voters. It took a plumber from Toledo to make even a dent in Mr. Obama's leftist pleasantries, prompting right-leaning voters old enough to remember the Soviet Union as more than an ironic fashion statement to recoil in shock with a cry of "Why, that's, that's socialism!" Yet on Election Day, these voters found themselves outnumbered, and not by small margins. They were outnumbered not just by young voters attracted to Mr. Obama's celebrity or minority voters attracted to his historical nature - though they are legion - but by voters who are tired of the status quo, who have heard no case for the free market on the national stage in a generation, and who want to give Mr. Obama's policies a shot, and see what happens.
Voters who remember the latter part of the 1970s have little interest in reenacting them. But the advantage of repeating history is knowledge of what's coming. As Walker Percy once wrote: "According to the opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. But you're not going to have it both ways. You're going to be told what you're doing."
Ben Domenech is the editor of The City.